WASHINGTON (AFP) — Kevin Garnett has sparked Boston to the best one-season turnaround in National Basketball Association history and the star forward has the Celtics poised for their first playoff crown since 1986.
Coming off their second-worst campaign at 24-58, the Celtics finished an NBA-best 66-16 in the regular season to earn a home-court advantage throughout the championship playoffs that begin Saturday.
"That's big. It says a lot about you as a team," Garnett said. "We've earned what we have gotten. We have to be consistent. We have a good chance."
The Celtics, winners of a record 16 NBA titles, broke reigning NBA champion San Antonio's record one-season reversal of 36 games after swinging trades for Garnett last July and Ray Allen last June to join prime playmaker Paul Pierce.
"We have to stay strong, step forward and look at the big picture," Celtics scoring leader Pierce said. "We can't get complacent. We have to take some momentum into the playoffs. Records don't mean anything. Everybody is 0-0."
Pierce leads the Celtics with 19.8 points a game and averages 4.6 assists while Garnett averages 19.0 points and a team-high 9.3 rebounds a game and provides the focus and spark that have turned Boston into a title threat.
"We talk hard work and harmony, playing together. If we keep those things, we have a pretty good chance," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Our guys have worked their butts off. We've been preparing for the playoffs not resting."
The Celtics have won only three playoff series in the past 15 years while the Minnesota Timberwolves struggled to get past the first round during Garnett's stay, even in 2004 when he was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player.
"I'm going to try to enjoy it this time," Garnett said.
NBA scoring leader LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, the spark of New Orleans' rise to title contention, have all made strong cases for NBA Most Valuable Player honors this season.
But Garnett, who turns 32 next month, has been the most vital player on the NBA's winningest team.
"What's our record? That's all I have to say," Rivers said. "I'm not going to go on a campaign speech. One of the things I like about our team is no one cares about the individual things. I think our record speaks for itself."
So does Allen, who noted Garnett sacrificing his individual achievements for the success of the club.
"Look at the team's record. Look at the turnaround," Allen said. "He's probably the more unselfish guy that's made his team better."
But when it comes to MVP talk, Garnett has little to say for himself.
"Next question," Garnett said. "It's not about individuals. It's all about what you do as a team."
The Celtics won all three regular-season meetings with first-round playoff opponent Atlanta, but struggled with potential second-round foes - losing three of four to Washington and splitting four with reigning East champion Cleveland.
Boston obtained Sam Cassell last month from the Los Angeles Clippers and the 38-year-old guard, who helped Houston two NBA titles in his first two NBA seasons, has turned back the clock ahead of the playoff run.
"It ain't easy at my age, but I'm getting into a little rhythm," Cassell said.
"He's really playing well as of late and he's starting to get into the flow," Pierce said. "He's going to be big for us in the post-season."
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